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Paramount Home Video presents
"Their heads were not found severed. Their heads were not found at all."
DVD ReviewMovie adaptations of literary properties often take wild liberties with their source material, often to the point where little of the original remains recognizable. The Tim Burton version of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a prime example, though what it loses in permissiveness, it makes up in creativity. Imagine, if you will, Irving as if written by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, and then filmed by Terence Fisher, and you'll get a sense of where this revisionary text ended up.
Instead of being a gawky and nervous schoolmaster, this Ichabod Crane is a New York City constable in 1799, who advocates using scientific methods to solve crimes, à la Dupin. Irritated at Crane, a burgomaster (Christopher Lee in a tiny but scene-setting role) sends him on a mission to solve a series of mysterious beheadings in upstate Sleepy Hollow. Once there, he finds a group of terrified town elders, Rev. Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), magistrate Samuel Philipse (Richard Griffiths), Dr. Thomas Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid) and notary James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). He also finds Katrina (Christina Ricci), the charming young daughter of Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), and they quickly develop a barely-concealed interest in each other. All signs point to the murders being committed by the ghost of a Hessian horseman (Christopher Walken), despite Crane's best efforts to find a rational explanation. Or is there a deeper secret hiding in Sleepy Hollow?
The screenplay, by Andrew Kevin Walker (of Seven—what is it with this guy and severed heads?), converts Ichabod Crane into a most bizarre character, interested by mechanical doodads and unafraid to don outrageous goggles and perform autopsies knee-deep in gore. Depp and Burton are in their element by emphasizing the outré aspects of a character, and they really let go here. Depp has undeniable enthusiasm for the part, and one can't help but like it despite all the violence done to the character. Ricci provides an intriguing blend of innocence and experience, with a suspicious knowledge of witchcraft thrown in to boot. The supporting English actors are all superb as they play off Depp and each other, and they're a delight to watch. And of course, since Christopher Walken is terrifying when he plays a straight dramatic role, casting him as the demonic horseman (before becoming headless) is a masterstroke.
One of the additions to the story that doesn't quite work is giving Ichabod a backstory of witchcraft affecting his own life; while it does provide an explanation for his devotion to rational deduction and animosity to religion and superstition, it bogs down the momentum of the central mystery a bit too much. There is plenty of magic and witchcraft in the story as it is, and the fairy tale quality might have been a bit better preserved without delving directly into religious persecution. Retaining the social awkwardness of Crane helps keep the sense of the original story alive despite all of the alterations. Mood is intensely important here, a common thread for Burton's work, and that moodiness in emphasized by photography that is nearly black and white, with virtually all of the color drained out of the picture (except in dream sequences). Between the photography, the evocative sound design and the insistent but not frantic editing, the sequences when the headless horseman attack are highly tense and suspenseful. There is one cheap jolt scare when Crane visits a witch in the woods that I could have done without; its over-the-top CGI feels very out of place in this period piece
When your film is centered on decapitations, one has to expect a certain amount of gore and gruesomeness, though that is minimized somewhat by virtue of the mechanism of the horseman's sword being so hot it cauterizes as it cuts. The worst bit actually is not human grue, but a tree that gouts blood as Depp swings an axe at it, more for the sheer nightmarishness of the sequence rather than goriness. While the violence is very intense, the R rating hardly seems to be justified. The suspense factor and the atmosphere make the film a good deal scarier than most so-called horror films. Although the central mystery is hardly impenetrable, the films rewards repeated viewing by giving virtually all of the clues in the opening minutes, before they make any sense at all to the viewer. It's a clever construction (no surprise with Walker as the writer), and this helps make the picture thoroughly enjoyable on both the first and later viewings.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The high-definition widescreen transfer has its high points; the closeups of important manuscripts in particular are stunning in their clarity and definition. Much of the rest of the film has heavy grain and is swathed in fog, a deadly combination for compressionists. Although the characters generally look fine, the backgrounds have an unfortunate tendency to shimmer as the grain becomes overwhelming for the VC-1 codec. That's especially the case in shots of the foggy Hudson River. There also is an unfortunate amount of edge enhancement ringing visible in a variety of spots. The source print is in good shape, although a few specks of dust are seen here and there. On smaller screens or at large viewing distances this will look filmlike, but the transfer doesn't bear close and critical inspection. This might have been a good title to wait to release after more experience is gained in HD compression techniques. It is, nevertheless, a huge improvement over the murky original DVD, and the blacks and whites are nice and crisp throughout.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: Dolby Digital + 5.1 tracks are provided in English, French and Spanish, as well as a standard DTS 5.1 track. All seem a bit shrill musically, though the range is quite good. Danny Elfman's bombastic score comes across with fine panache. The thundering hooves of the headless horseman have a solid impact, as do his fatal attacks. The DD+ track feels like a much richer mix than the DTS, with a wider soundstage. I found it much preferable.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Tim Burton
Extras Review: All of the significant extras from the original DVD release are included here, with the addition of the very welcome theatrical and teaser trailers, in high definition. These show the colorful picture before desaturation, and give a very different impression than the feature.
Burton is notorious for having little to say in commentaries, though for this disc he apparently had someone prompting him on various points for discussion (though only Burton is heard). He has a number of interesting remarks, especially about homages to various films over the running time, but there are a number of long dead spots, especially during the finale.
Also present are a documentary and a featurette, both of which are essentially electronic press kit fluff, although the longer version has some interesting behind-the-scenes material. Don't view the featurette before you watch the feature, however, since the ending is blatantly given away.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsDon't look for faithfulness to the original story, but if you can get beyond that there's a lot to like in Burton's reimagining of the classic tale, from the mood to the quirkiness. The HD transfer can't quite keep up with the grain, though.
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